Rhythm and Blues | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Rhythm and Blues

Rhythm and blues (R&B, soul). Popular black music genre of US origin.
Jully Black
Jully Black

Rhythm and blues (R&B, soul). Popular black music genre of US origin. Rooted in the "urban blues" style of the early 1930s and influenced by the black jazz orchestras of the swing era, R&B emerged in the 1940s initially in the form of small-band "jump" music with novelty-type vocalists and jazz-based hornmen and organists. By the early 1950s, solo vocalists had introduced in a crooning style that blended blues with supper club techniques and broadened the music's appeal to white audiences; "doo-wop" harmony groups and gospel-based vocalists further directed the evolution of R&B toward the impassioned "soul" style that would be a significant sound in popular music during the 1960s. With the entry of recording companies in Detroit, Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, and Memphis into the R&B market, a variety of regional styles flourished.

R&B has undergone a succession of stylistic (and corresponding semantic) variations. Billboard magazine renamed its "Race Records" chart "R&B" in 1949; R&B became soul in 1969. As the term and style of fashion, soul gave way to funk in 1974, funk to disco by decade's end, and disco to black music in the early 1980s, each with its distinguishing traits. By 1990, the term R&B was again current, embracing as sub-styles soul, funk, "quiet storm," hip hop and "house" variants, and "new jack swing."

Canada's contribution to R&B, no less than to pop, country, and rock, was for many years essentially peripheral - largely the presence of a loyal listening and record-buying audience whose taste corresponded to that in the dominant US market. Historically US stars have always been popular in Canada - more so, inevitably, than their Canadian counterparts. As early as the 1950s Canadian clubs were host to the leading "honkers [tenor saxophonists] and shouters," jump bands and vocalists of the day - eg, Louis Jordan, Amos Milburn, and Bill Doggett. Early Canadian R&B/jazz groups were led in a similar style in Toronto by the pianist Cy McLean (originally from Sydney, NS) and in Montreal and environs by the drummer Johnny Wiggins (Four Soul Brothers) and the trumpeter Billy Martin.

By the 1960s, R&B enjoyed broadly enough based popularity with young, white audiences to give rapid rise to many other local groups. In Montreal the Apollo, Club 217, the Esquire Showbar, Soul Heaven, and the Uptown were primary venues for Dennis Dean, Skipper Dean, Eddie (Watson) and the Preachers, Kenny Hamilton, Roy Hamilton, Trevor Payne (who sang with the Soul Brothers and Triangle), the Persuaders, the Senators, the Soul Mates, and Harrison Tabb, while in Halifax (where Davy Wells starred on the local telecast of CBC's "Music Hop") R&B was heard at the Arrow Club and the Club Unusual. The R&B scene in Toronto was split between the bars of the downtown Yonge Street "strip" (the Bluenote, Hawk's Nest, Coq D'Or, etc) and the coffeehouses of the Yorkville district (eg, Boris's), the latter also home to many folk and folk-rock performers.

Canadian R&B bands typically were racially mixed, often featuring black singers (US- or Canadian-born) with white musicians, and played the (US) hits of the day along with obscurities and original songs. According to one estimate, R&B-oriented groups accounted 1965-6 for more than half of the bar bands in Toronto. Notable performers in that city included Dianne Brooks and Eric Mercury (who sang with the Soul Searchers before pursuing solo careers), David Clayton-Thomas and the Shays, Jack Hardin and the Silhouettes (which included Brooks and her then pre-teenaged daughter Joanne), Shawne and Jay Jackson and the Majestics, Jon (Finlay) & Lee (Jackson) & the Checkmates, Richie Knight and the Mid-Knights, Bobby Kris and the Imperials, R.K. (Roy Kenner) and the Associates, Eddie Spencer and the Power, The Five Rogues (later Mandala - see Domenic Troiano), Motherlode, the Tierras, Jason King, Tobi Lark, Shirley Matthews, and Jackie Shane.

Meet Jackie Shane, the singer and trailblazer that came to prominence during Toronto's bustling Yonge Street music scene during the '60s.

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Matthews, originally from Harrow, Ont, had a Canadian hit in 1963 with "Big Town Boy" and won the 1964 Juno Award for female vocalist of the year. Jackie Shane, a transgender woman known for her energetic and risqué performances with Frank Motley and the Hitchhikers at Toronto's Sapphire Tavern, also had a Canadian hit in 1963 with "Any Other Way." Both recordings were early instances of black, domestic R&B enjoying mainstream popularity, predating the successes of such white Canadian bands as the Shays ("Walk That Walk," 1965), Bobby Kris and the Imperials ("Walk On By," 1966), and the Jon-Lee Group ("Bring It Down Front," 1967). Although the "blue-eyed soul" of Mandala made the greatest impact in Toronto during the mid-1960s (its first singer, George Olliver, would sustain his own career into the 1990s), the interracial quartet Motherlode had greater US success, in 1969, with "When I Die."

In Yorkville, meanwhile, Luke and the Apostles, the Ugly Ducklings, and other white groups found common ground between British revivalist blues-rock (see Blues) and US R&B. Also in Yorkville, the black singer and guitarist Rick James (James Johnson of Buffalo), a leading figure in US funk music during the late 1970s, was a member (as Rick Matthews) ca 1965 with Neil Young of a rock band, the Mynah Birds.

Several Canadians in this period worked in the US, among them R. Dean Taylor of Toronto and Harrison Kennedy of Hamilton, Ont, both active in Detroit. Taylor was a staff writer for the Motown label; he collaborated on the Supremes' 1968 hit "Love Child" and had an international hit of his own with the pop (rather than R&B) song "Indiana Wants Me" (for Rare Earth) in 1970. Kennedy was a member 1969-74 of the Chairman of the Board whose many hits (for Invictus) included "Give Me a Little More Time" in 1970; Kennedy later continued his career in Toronto. From the Canadian west coast, the multi-racial group Bobby Taylor and the Vancouvers had a US hit with "Does Your Mama Know About Me?" in 1968.

With the rise of funk in the 1970s, West Indian-born musicians began to make their mark on Canadian R&B. The eight-man Crack of Dawn, patterned after the progressive US band Earth, Wind & Fire, appeared in the Toronto clubs hospitable to R&B at this time (the Generator, Colonial Tavern, Savarin, 4th Dimension, etc) and recorded for Columbia (including the modest hit "It's Alright [This Feeling]") before disbanding in 1977. Members Carl Harvey and Glen Ricketts subsequently played influentual roles in the development of Canadian black music (see also Reggae), and Rupert Harvey was a founder in 1981 of Messenjah.

In the mid-1970s many R&B/soul artists in Canada took their music to the dance floor (see also Disco). In this manner, Montreal's Claudja Barry (then based in Germany and later in New York), Alma Faye Brooks, John Usry (as "Stratavarious"), Jimmy Ray (as "Katmandu"), Goldie Alexander, Geraldine Hunt, and Hunt's son Freddie James and daughter, Rosalind Milligan Hunt, had success on Canadian, British and US charts. Rosalind Milligan Hunt's group Cheri reached the top 40 of Billboard magazine's Hot 100 with "Murphy's Law" in 1982. Wayne St. John, meanwhile, was the first Canadian black artist to reach no. 1 on the RPM charts as the singer for the THP Orchestra's "(Theme from) S.W.A.T." in 1976. Other noted R&B performers during the 1970s included Salome Bey, Joanne Brooks, Phil Dino, Jackie Gabriel, Curtis Lee, Bill King, Aubrey Mann, the Mighty Pope (Earle Heedram), Jackie Richardson, Betty Richardson, Eugene Smith, and Sweet Blindness.

While the 1980s gradually saw the club circuit return to gritty funk and solid soul, the major record labels in Canada did not follow suit, instead tailoring their R&B artists to the apparent requirements of pop radio. Toronto singers Billy Newton-Davis, Liberty Silver, and Erroll Starr were packaged in this manner to limited commercial success and enjoyed only the promotional satisfaction of receiving Juno Awards for best R&B/Soul recording - Silver in 1985 for "Lost Somewhere Inside Your Love," Newton-Davis in 1986 for Love Is a Contact Sport and in 1990 for Spellbound, and Starr in 1989 for "Angel." Other Juno recipients to 1991 in this category were Kim Richardson in 1987 for "Peek-A-Boo" and Simply Majestic featuring B. Kool in 1991 for "Dance to the Music (Work Your Body)." The Montreal singer Georges Thurston (b Bedford, Que 29 Dec 1951, d Montreal 18 June 2007), who performed and recorded as Boule Noire, employed a similarly commercial R&B style during the 1970s and 1980s, and the quintet Tchukon, established by US musicians in Montreal in 1981, combined R&B with funk, reggae, and jazz influences on the album Here and Now, which followed the group's victories in CBC TV's Rock Wars (1985) and the syndicated US show Star Search (1986). The band continued in 1990 as H3-Factor.

Many other Canadian artists recorded independently during the 1980s, among them George Banton, David Bendeth, Demo Cates, Tony Douglas, Arlene Duncan, Cecile Frenette, John James, Glen Johnson, the Lincolns, Jay W. McGhee, Yvonne Moore, Oddett, Phase IV, George St Kitts, Lorraine Scott, Something Extra, Eddie Staxx, Sweet Ecstasy, and Michael Thompson, all of Toronto, as well as Al Hinton and Jimmy Young of Kitchener, Ont, and Charles Biddle Jr, Bones Jones, Normand Braithwaite, Fussy Cussy Nicodemus, and Kenny Hamilton in Montreal. Biddle and Braithwaite, like Thurston and (in the 1960s) Pierre Perpall before them, have recorded songs in French.

The influence of rap and its innovations was felt in R&B in Canada by 1990, both in the music itself - eg, Simply Majestic and B. Kool's "Dance to the Music (Work Your Body)" that year and Debbie Johnson's "I'll Respect You" in 1991, combining rap with soul/gospel vocals and dance rhythms - and in the recording industry's fleeting preoccupation with young rappers at the expense of R&B and soul artists.

While several new acts nevertheless were taken up by major labels at the turn of the 1990s including the Vancouver/Toronto duo Love and Sas, Montreal's Chamberlain, Ottawa's Alanis, and the Toronto artists Lisa Lougheed, Porsha-Lee, and Spunkadelic (Ray Guiste and Ali Whittaker), the leading edge of Canadian R&B in 1991 was defined by the Halifax rappers MC J and Cool J (see Rap), who termed their music "double R&B" (for "rap, rhythm and blues"), and by the dance-oriented, Toronto techno-soul duo Index - Lennox Grant and Rupert Gayle, who teamed up as members of the funk quartet Traffic Jam in 1983 and evolved into the electro duo Streetbeat by 1987.

By now in its fifth decade Canadian R&B had survived and occasionally thrived despite the progressive push of an innovation-conscious recording industry in pursuit of young audiences and the revivalist pull of older fans loyal to the music's long-standing traditions. Still newer artists emerging in the early 1990s from clubs in Toronto (Network, Berlin, a revived Blue Note, etc) and Montreal (eg, Checkers) reflected this duality: Sub Culture with Marcus, and Carle E and Lifetime in the vanguard, and Erica James and Corporate Funk Association in the more traditional vein.

Canadian R&B Comes Into Its Own

Somewhere in the mid-1990s, the term "urban music" became the catchall phrase to describe dance music consisting mainly of R&B, soul and hip hop. In reality, urban music was simply a polite industry expression for "black music," an evolution of sorts that made mainly white music executives more comfortable in promoting the music from the larger African-American/Canadian community. Whatever it was called, Canadian R&B was evolving and maturing; however, critical elements of the infrastructure were still missing. Radio, then the chief means of promotion for artists and labels, was muted for Canadian R&B artists. Without support from this crucial medium, the R&B/urban music industry could never truly grow or prosper. Without domestic radio support, Canadian artists would continue to receive limited exposure.

Recognizing this plight and sensing a business opportunity, Toronto businessman Denham Jolly founded Milestone Radio Inc. and in 1990 applied to the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) for a license to operate an urban music station in Toronto, but was denied. Six years later Jolly re-applied but was again rejected. At the time, the CRTC was widely criticized for passing over an urban-formatted station in Canada's largest, most multicultural city. Jolly applied for another license in 1998 and was rewarded in June 2000 when the CRTC chose his bid as the successful applicant. In February 2001, CFXJ-FM hit the airwaves as Flow 93.5 FM - Canada's first urban music station.

Within a few years of the launch of Flow 93.5, stations in Vancouver, Kitchener and Calgary jumped on the urban music bandwagon, and flipped their programming to urban music; all have, however, since reverted back to pop-Top 40 playlists. Only Flow, as of the year 2010, maintained its urban street flavour.

Before urban radio came to Canada, a seismic shift in the industry occurred in the summer of 1984 when MuchMusic launched on cable TV across the country. Modelled after the hugely successful MTV in the US, MuchMusic featured many of the same pop videos by American and international artists, but also a heavy dose of Canadian content as mandated by the CRTC. This new marketing tool was instantly embraced by artists of all genres, but especially R&B performers who realized that a good song combined with a clever video could earn them regular airplay - and help boost record sales - on this new national network.

In its early days, MuchMusic featured two influential announcers - or VJ's, as they are often referred to - who would champion music and videos by Canadians artists, using their clout to boost the careers of many soul and funk bands and artists including Bass is Base (featuring future stars Ivana Santilli and celebrity chef Roger Mooking), B-Funn, Special G, Billy Newton-Davis, Errol Starr, Lorraine Reid, Debbie Johnson and Lorraine Reid.

Michael Williams, who produced and/or hosted various shows on "the nation's music station" (as the station billed itself) from 1984-1994 including Soul in the City, Rap City, Electric Circus and The New Music, along with Tony "Master T" Young (Rap City and Da Mix), were as instrumental in the growth of Canada's urban music scene as anyone before or since. Their insistence on breaking new videos by quality Canadian acts had a hugely positive impact on the country's musical mainstream by introducing consumers and radio programmers to new and veteran talent. Though not on air, Young and Williams have remained involved in the music industry in a variety of endeavours.

Just as MuchMusic was launching operations, DJ/promoter Daniel Caudeiron founded the Black Music Association of Canada in Toronto and from 1984-87 presented BMAC Awards in nine categories, including best R&B song. This award show was important, but lacked the clout and prestige of the country's premier industry awards show - the Juno Awards.

Despite having been around since 1970, the Juno Awards - Canada's national equivalent of the Grammy Awards - held little significance for R&B artists who didn't have a category of their own. That changed in 1985 when the Junos created the Best R&B/Soul Recording award. Liberty Silver won that first award in this new category, and other prominent winners have included Deborah Cox (three times) and double winners Billy Newton-Davis, Jacksoul, and Love & Sas. Another Juno milestone was achieved in 2001 when for the first time an R&B act (Deborah Cox) performed live on the televised portion of the show.

Ironically, while the domestic scene was percolating with activity in cities across the country, R&B was treated with indifference by the major record labels, which didn't have any signed Canadian R&B acts on their rosters. And it took an American musical heavyweight to change that reality. In 1992, Clive Davis, then president of Arista Records, signed Toronto's Deborah Cox to a record deal and watched with pride as her self-titled debut album exploded up the charts, including the hits Sentimental (a Top 5 R&B single) and Who Do U Love (a Top 20 pop single).

The album earned Cox two Juno awards for Best R&B/Soul Recording (1995 and 1996) and Cox was nominated for Best New Artist at the American Music Awards in 1997. Bigger success came in 1998 with her single Nobody's Supposed to Be Here, which spent a then-record 14 weeks atop the Billboard Hot R&B/Hip Hop Singles chart. More awards followed and Cox's success led other US labels to cast their collective gazes north in the search for unsigned talent, resulting in various major label signings for artists such as Tamia and Melanie Durrant (Motown), Glenn Lewis (Epic) and Jully Black (MCA).

The commercial success of these acts, along with the rise of urban radio stations in cities across Canada, was hugely responsible for later triumphs by "domestic" acts including Hamilton singer Haydain Neale (Jacksoul), Edmonton's Kreesha Turner and Jeff Hendrick, Jarvis Church of Toronto, Ottawa's Keisha Chante and Winnipeg's Remy Shand, whose debut album The Way I Feel won a Juno Award in 2003 (Best R&B/Soul Recording), plus four Grammy nominations.

Well before urban radio or music videos came to Canada a group of urban entrepreneurs, promoters, producers and activists, including Ivan Berry, Rupert Gayle, Jonathan Ramos, Ebonnie Rowe, Trevor Shelton, Ron Nelson, Orin Isaacs, Derek Brin, Carl Allen, Victor Bains Marshall, Norman Otis Richmond, Clifton Joseph and Farley Flex, were at the forefront of the urban music scene. In 1997, Berry's Beat Factory Records signed distribution deals with EMI and BMG, allowing the label to release quality compilations of Canadian rap and R&B, which helped introduce the world to future Canadian stars like Glenn Lewis, Carlos Morgan, Wade O. Brown, and Jamie Sparks of Halifax. The label's GroovEssential compilation (1997) featured three songs that were later nominated for Juno Awards in the Best R&B/Soul category.

Ebonnie Rowe's contribution to Canadian R&B has been exceptional. She's the founder and CEO of PhemPhat Productions, an all-female production company dedicated to showcasing young women interested in creating urban music. Her annual Honey Jam showcase, which in 2010 celebrates its 15th year, launched the career of a young Victoria, BC singer named Nelly Furtado, propelling her to superstardom. Other talents to grace the Honey Jam stage include Jully Black, Graph Nobel, Divine Brown, Amalia Townsend, Masia One, Rosina Kazi, Jennie Laws, Denosh Bennett and gospel sensation Patricia Shirley.

In Quebec, R&B crooner Corneille is as big a star in France as he is in his home province. In 2005, the German-born singer who now resides in Montréal won a prestigious NRJ Music Video of the Year Award for his song Parce qu'on vient de loin. The NRJ Awards, created by radio station NRJ in partnership with the television station TF1, are handed out yearly in Cannes, France, as part of MIDEM NRJ (Marché international de l'édition musicale).

Other important developments in the growth of the industry were the creation of the Urban Music Association of Canada (UMAC) in 1996, and the African Nova Scotian Music Association in 1997. The older but less active Black Music Association of Canada - Toronto Branch has been around since 1984; it helped lay the foundation for music industry activism in this country, but it was UMAC that raised the bar for urban music artists and the industry.

Formed in Toronto by a collective of industry stalwarts with a passion for urban music, UMAC went through several leadership challenges before former A&M Records promotion rep Tony Sutherland assumed leadership in 1998. Within five years, Sutherland and his volunteer board helped launch a nationally-televised awards show that paid tribute to a who's who of the industry, including builders and media, handing out awards to jazz great Oscar Peterson, artist manager Chris Smith, pioneering rappers Maestro and Michee Mee, and the publishers of Word and Peace magazines, among others. American-born Will Strickland was appointed president of UMAC in 2006.

Other singers or bands still enjoying acclaim in Canada early in the 21st century included Gary Beals of Halifax, Shawn Desman, Wade O. Brown, Kaytee Burgess, Blackburn, God Made Me Funky, Toya Alexis, Di'Ja, Justin Bieber and Massari of Toronto, and Montreal's Uness, Addictiv, Zaho, and Carl Henry. Jordan Croucher of Halifax was still performing actively and former Bass is Base singer Chin Injeti, now living in Vancouver, continued to be a major player on the west coast. Soul singers including Charlene Smith, Sean Oliver and Sarah Daye of Toronto, Vancouver's Love & Sas, and Hamilton's Sharon Musgrave found greater opportunities overseas in England and Asia, where their blend of Canadian soul, R&B and jazz has found critical acclaim among local audiences.

Entering the second decade of the 21st millennium, the enthusiasm for Canadian R&B is being energetically nurtured by artists, associations, media, promoters, DJs, producers and writers with an interest in its continued growth and progress. Current R&B superstars Drake, Melanie Fiona, Tamia and Deborah Cox, who all began their careers in Canada, have shown that the talent is here on our soil, and given the chance, Canadian musicians can have international success. And with the growing clout of the Internet as a distribution, promotional and marketing vehicle, the digital age promises even more breakthroughs for new and underground Canadian R&B artists.

Selected Discography

George Banton You're All I Need. (1985). Lovelight LLT-1105

Claudja Barry I, Claudja. (1987). Epic 40622

David Bendeth The Bendeth Band. (1981). RCA BXL1-4133

Boule Noire Resolution. (1991). Sony PFCK-80149

Dianne Brooks Some Other Kind of Soul. (1970). Revolver RLPS-503

- Back Stairs of My Life. (1976). Warner MS-2244

Demo Cates In Flight. (1986). Abraham Records AALP-55

Cheri Cheri. (1982). 21 Records TIS-1-9001

Corneille Parce qu'on vient de loin. (2003). Wagram

Deborah Cox One Wish. (1998). Arista

Crack of Dawn. Crack of Dawn. (1976). Col 90336

Kenny Hamilton. Right Here Is Where You Belong. (1985). D.K. Productions DK-7777

Jeff Hendrick Soul Celebration. (2005). Bout Time

Index Now You're Gone. (1991). Blast/Justin Entertainment BL-1002 (CD and cass)

Jacksoul Absolute. (1996). VIK/BMG

(Glen) Johansen Walking a Fine Line. (1988). Coach House CHLP-21188

Harrison Kennedy Live in the Eye. (1989). Independence Records IND.99

Aubrey Mann Feeling Good. (1979). D.K. Productions DK-16

Eric Mercury Electric Black Man. (1969). Avco Embassy AVE-33001

- Eric Mercury. (1975). Mercury SRM-1-1026

Motherlode And When I Die. (1969). Revolver RLPS-501

George Olliver Natural Gas. (1970). Firebird FB-18

- Dream Girl. (1987). Slott Records CSPS-31048

Glen Ricketts I Found a Love. (1986). D.K. Productions G.R.-7773

Liberty Silver Private Property. (1988). Eureka EK-12000

Ivana Santilli Brown. (2000). Brown Recordings

Spundadelic Spunk Junk. (1991). SBK/Cap K2-95826

Remy Shand The Way I Feel. (2002). Motown

Erroll Starr Temple of Love. (1987). A&M SP-9130

Sweet Blindness Sweet Blindness. (1976). Qual SV-1923

Tchukon Here and Now. (1987). Aquarius AQR-546

THP Orchestra Early Riser. (1976). RCA KPL1-0154

Ugly Ducklings The Ugly Ducklings. 1966-7. (1982). Yorktown YT-50003

Various artists Live at the Bluenote. (1983). Qual SV-2127

- Made in Canada: volume one 1960-1970. (1990). RCA KCD1-7157

Further Reading

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